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The Designer's Notebook: Where's Our Merchant Ivory?
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The Designer's Notebook: Where's Our Merchant Ivory?

August 7, 2006 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

The struggle for public respect goes on. As soon as the Entertainment Software Association knocks down one clown-made unconstitutional ordinance designed to censor video games, another one pops up somewhere else. It’s Whack-A-Mole with lawsuits.

Video games are an easy target because, unlike the movies, games have no powerful friends and no beautiful film stars to argue for them. But there are many other reasons for our lack of cultural credibility as well. Some of them aren’t our fault, but a surprising number are, and recently I’ve thought of another one: We don’t have any highbrow games.

Almost every other entertainment medium has an élite form. Books have serious literature, the kind that wins Pulitzer and Nobel prizes. Music has classical music—not just popular favorites like Beethoven and Mozart, but other forms that are less familiar and less easy to love: twelve-tone music and grand opera. Dance? Ballet, obviously. TV, the most relentlessly proletarian medium of them all, still manages to devote a handful of channels to science, history, and the arts. (Science, history, and the arts aren’t really highbrow, but programming executives certainly think they are.)

And movies? Movies have Merchant Ivory, a small and very unusual production company. For over 40 years, Ismail Merchant (now deceased, alas), James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala made a string of incredibly beautiful and well-acted movies on subjects that would never be big hits at the shopping mall cineplex. These weren’t “art films,” short low-budget titles filled with impenetrable weirdness; they were rich, thoughtful works that addressed serious issues.

Big Hollywood stars lined up to appear in Merchant Ivory films even though the stars didn’t stand a hope in hell of making the kind of money they were used to, because it was worth it just for the prestige value alone. The same is true of Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespeare films. Take a look at the his Hamlet; the credits read like a Who’s Who of Tinseltown. Half the cast could easily get a leading role in a moneymaker, yet they signed up for bit parts in Hamlet just for the chance to say they did it.

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Matt Iverson
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This is a great article!

In response I have to say that I feel the gaming industry is already working its way into the highbrow market, and has been for years. The titles that fit this description admittedly fall into a very small category in the overall scheme of video games at large, but they DO exist. The Meier and Wright titles mentioned in the article are of course notable, but to my mind there are others out there at least as worthy of consideration in this regard.

Any time the question of whether or not video games count as 'art' comes up, the products of developer Team Ico seem to be mentioned. The studio has a total of TWO completed titles to its credit, both of which are held among the hallowed ranks of Greatest Games Ever by critics and gamers alike worldwide. These two titles, Ico, and Shadow of the Colossus both succeeded at being fun and entertaining while encompassing weighty emotional ideas and concepts far beyond the usual reach of what is found in a video game. Does that make these games highbrow? Maybe not, but it certainly serves to exemplify that there is a place for the 'intellectual' set in this medium, and that it can even be successful commercially.

The third title I feel deserves mention is the golden child of Icelandic developer CCP Games, the MMO Eve Online. Eve has been around since 2003, and consistently held an active population of 100,000+ players for the majority of that time. It is, in essence, an applied free-market simulation that happens in outer space. It requires thought and research to play successfully, and, were it a film, would probably see only limited release to the same ilk of audiences that attended showings of Branagh's 'Henry V'. However, it's been showing successfully for EIGHT YEARS now, and I think that warrants something.

Thanks for the awesome article, and that's my two cents!